Perfectionism Kills

My brain is wired funnily.

“Ok, I need to be 1% better each day, because that would lead to ~3700% per year by compound interest…And I need to be 1% better in all areas of life, ok, let’s see. I meditated, I ate healthily, I learned a thing or two…damn, I forgot to go to the gym…”

That was the thought process I had in my head 2 seconds before I started blaming myself.

My brain is wired funnily: it thinks that I have to be #1 at everything I do. I need to be the smartest, the fittest, the strongest, the healthiest, the richest, etc.,

What will happen if I am not? Nobody will love me.

Such perfectionism can kill you. Or at least it can make your life an ongoing misery. I didn’t find any valuable answers to this problem on the Internet, so I decided to write this piece.

For as long as I can remember, I did things brilliantly. When I was a kid, the adults were amazed by my ability to do my homework without a need for help or a kick in the butt. I was always serious and called a ‘small professor’ — there are photos of me standing with a briefcase at five years old.

No kid should ever have a briefcase.

As I grew older, I started to view this strive for perfectionism as a superpower. I didn’t obsess about homework or later work because I knew that I’d lock myself in my room and do what’s needed.

When I had to apply to college, I stopped attending school classes, because I thought them to be too slow for me. Instead, I would do what I always did best: came up with a plan and used hardcore discipline to stick to it.

I eventually scored higher on my SATs than most of my American friends (with English being my second language), and I got into some of the top universities in the U.S.

When I started working, I was a perfectionist at everything. I would come earlier to meetings. I would do what’s needed and then something extra. I would work long nights because I thought ‘that’s what’s needed to achieve success,’ whatever ‘success’ means to you personally.

It wasn’t until this year (actually, yesterday) that I realized that:

a) I am a perfectionist
b) This is not healthy

I didn’t identify myself as a perfectionist for years (in fact, I always thought of myself as a slacker). Ironically, this is something most perfectionists do.

Of course, perfectionism can be healthy and useful, if you’re using it as a tool for something you’re committed to. For example, your business or your passion, or something else you care about.

But when perfectionism starts to consume you, and you feel obligated to be perfect in all areas of life, it becomes unhealthy. When all you do is constantly blame yourself for not being the best at everything, it turns your life into misery.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I would start something new, I would tell myself I need to be the best at it, or otherwise, there’s no point in starting.

It may sound cool, driven, and ambitious to strive to be #1, and it’s probably something a Silicon Valley entrepreneur would tell their investor, along with ‘I want to make the world a better place.’

But as my dad once told me, ‘Investors don’t know anything about business because everyone lies to them.’

Think about it like this:

  • There are things you can control, and then there are things you can’t (hey, Stoicism!)
  • You can control your effort, but you can never control the outcome. Let alone becoming #1 at everything you do.
  • Becoming #1 at everything is impossible — it’s something you can hope for and work towards, but it’s not something you plan to achieve, let alone setting a goal of achieving.
  • Hence, setting expectations of becoming #1 — and blaming yourself if you don’t achieve it (duh) — is neurotic.

What Do You Do?

After a few hours of googling and discussions with my girlfriend, I concluded, that nobody is born a perfectionist. We become one if we feel the deep insecurity and the need to prove something to someone (my dad?).

Perfectionists are people who are secretly afraid that if they let go for a second, nobody will love them for who they are.

And it’s toxic. I know.

Striving for perfection everywhere and at all times makes it feel as if you’re eating unsalted food, or living life in a straightjacket.

There are a few things you can do if you realized that you’re a perfectionist. They won’t cure it, but they’ll help you deal with it and learn to live with it.

Accept it.

Perfectionism is the inability to accept yourself for who you are. You think you need to be a certain way to be loved, which is not true. Accepting the fact that yeah, you’re a perfectionist, is the first step.

‘What if you tried the opposite?’

It’s a good general rule for everything: if you feel stuck, ask yourself, ‘What if you tried the opposite?’.

What if you stopped being a perfectionist and became an idle slacker? What if you stopped being productive? What if you did (oh my!) nothing?

Sometimes going to the other extreme might give us valuable insight. For example, nothing will happen, and the world will continue spinning.

Harness your perfectionism

Striving for excellence can be a great thing if you channel it in something that means a lot to you.

For example, for me, it’s writing.

I realized that instead of spreading myself thin across different areas of my life, I could focus my perfectionism on one thing that matters most to me. I could use my perfectionism for my benefit.

It’s easy to burn out, so this approach requires that you let go in other areas of life. You have to keep enough fuel for what matters.

I could be perfect in my blogging, content, and writing (the ides, the quality, the timing, the discipline, etc.), and be mediocre in other areas of life.

Who cares?

My girlfriend asked me, ‘What if you were left alone on this Earth, would you still be striving for perfection?’ Good question.

My psychologist told me stories of people losing their parents. She told me that even 10 or 15 years after the parents died, their children (now, adults) still felt the pressure to prove something to their parents.

It’s not about other people.

Wherever that perfectionism comes from, it’s not external. It’s a part of you and your identity.

The important thing, I think, is to realize that life isn’t a bus trip with destinations. The point of life is to live, not to complete checkpoints or arrive at milestones.

It’s not about being ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ or even being ‘successful.’

It’s about being you and filling your unique slot in the Universe. It’s about being someone or something that has never been there before.

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